Spiritual But Not Religious?

What do you think of when you hear the word religion?

Does that word bring to mind cold, shallow formality? Strict rules and requirements? Man-made attempts to earn favor with God? Self-righteous hypocrisy? Maybe even corruption or oppression?

Those are the things that religion suggests to many people. Which helps explain why it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

Often the person who says this considers himself a follower of Jesus, but he turns up his nose at “organized religion” (meaning just about any clearly defined group with clearly defined beliefs and practices). As he sees it, religion is something that is imposed and enforced from without by others; spirituality comes from within as God works in a person’s heart. Spirituality is the real thing; religion is just a cheap imitation.

What does the Bible say?

The word religion appears only a handful of times in our English Bibles. Consider this warning about religion from the book of James:

If anyone among you thinks he is reli­gious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and unde­filed religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep one­self unspotted from the world (James 1:26-27, NKJV).

You’ll notice that James doesn’t say that religion is something to avoid. What he says is that my religion can be pure and undefiled, or it can be use­less. It depends on my actions. In this case, acceptable reli­gion means guarding my speech, helping the needy, and keeping myself morally pure.

James’ word is thr─ôskeia, from a root meaning “to tremble, fear.” The word describes spiritual zeal or worship of God. It is translated “wor­ship” in Colossians 2:18, where Paul attacks the prac­tice of worshiping angels. A form of the word also ap­pears in verse 23 of that chapter, where it is translated “will worship” or “self-made religion.” Like James, Paul isn’t saying that religion is inherently bad—only that I can be guilty of misdirecting it, abusing it, or trying to invent my own.

If the basic idea of religion is to fear and serve God, I confess I have trouble seeing how that’s a bad thing. “Fear God and keep His com­mandments,” said Solomon, “for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Those who reverence the Lord will obey His words, whether they pertain to personal conduct, worship, family, work, or anything else. As James emphasized, fearing God and obeying God go together. That’s what true religion does.

By the way, a few English translations also use the word religion in 1 Timothy 5:4, where Paul instructs disciples to “practice piety” (or “practice their religion”) toward their parents by providing for them in old age. The Greek word used there is eusebeia, meaning piety, reverence, or godliness. Paul may be using it in the sense of reverence toward one’s parents; but if godliness or religion is the intended sense, then he is emphasizing that caring for our family is one way of showing reverence toward God. If religion is godliness in action, I confess I have trouble seeing how that’s a bad thing.

Does the Bible speak of being spiritual? Yes, it does (see 1 Corinthians 2:15; 3:1; 14:37; Galatians 6:1). A person who is spiritual (Gr. pneumatikos), as Thayer defined it, is “one who is filled with and governed by the Spirit of God.” What does such a person’s life look like? Among other things, he seeks to put away conduct that displeases God and to produce the results that He desires (see Galatians 5:19-24). A spiritual person lives as God’s Spirit directs, not through some subjective feeling in his heart, but in the objective standard of the Spirit-inspired word.

To recap: Being spiritual means letting oneself be filled with and directed by God’s Spirit. Being religious means having reverence toward God that causes us to obey Him in all things. So…how exactly do those two ideas conflict with one another? In fact, how could the two be separated? The conflict arises only when we don’t use those terms the way God does in His word. That’s the flaw in the “spiritual but not religious” mantra.

Of course, throughout history many religious people and religious groups (if I may for a moment use that word in a broader sense) have gone very wrong in many different ways. But why? Because they failed in some way to “fear God and keep His commandments.” That is an indictment against vain religion, not against the kind of Spirit-guided piety and obedience that Scripture commends.

I’m afraid the real reason many people say they’re “spiritual but not religious” is that, while they may want a connection to God, they want to be free to define for themselves what that connection entails. They don’t like the word religion because it implies duty and accountability, both to God and to others. They don’t like it because it implies conforming to God’s revealed standard, not constructing our own. What many are craving, then, is ac­tually the very thing Paul con­demns in Colossians 2:23—self-made religion. That really is a cheap imitation.

Pure and undefiled religion means walking daily in the fear of the Lord (Acts 9:31). That’s what spiritual people do.